Theresa May is facing another parliamentary bust-up over her flagship Brexit legislation after a compromise designed to keep critics in her own party on board was denounced as “unacceptable” by Tory Remainers.
The move was branded “sneaky” by one backbencher while another senior pro-EU Tory said the wording of a Government amendment was changed at the last minute to deny MPs the chance of blocking a “no deal” Brexit.
A senior minister was forced to deny having lied to pro-EU Conservatives about the plan, which was signed off by the Prime Minisiter.
Peers are to vote on Monday on a proposal to give MPs the power to dictate the Government’s response if it fails to reach a deal with Brussels as a potentially bloody round of “parliamentary ping-pong” gets under way.
Mrs May avoided almost certain defeat in the House of Commons on Tuesday by inviting potential rebels into her private office and assuring them that their concerns about having a “meaningful vote” on the final Brexit deal would be addressed.
However, the amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill tabled on Thursday leaves Parliament facing a “deal or no deal” choice.
If MPs reject the agreement reached by Mrs May with Brussels – or if no deal has been obtained by January 21 – Parliament will be offered the opportunity only to vote on a “neutral motion” stating that it has considered a minister’s statement on the issue.
Crucially, the motion will be unamendable, meaning that MPs cannot insert a requirement for Mrs May to go back to the negotiating table, extend the Brexit transition or revoke the UK’s withdrawal under Article 50.
Leading pro-EU Conservative Dominic Grieve told the Press Association: “It is unacceptable in my view. It is not in accordance with the normal procedures of the House of Commons and it totally negates the point of the amendment, which was to give MPs a say.”
Mr Grieve indicated the final text of the amendment tabled by ministers on Thursday had been changed from the wording which he believed had been agreed earlier in the day.
He told PA: “After what had been a very sensible negotiation, I thought we had an agreement, and at the last moment part of the text was changed to make the final motion unamendable if there isn’t a deal by the end of January 21.
“I think it is unacceptable because it seems to me to be contrary to what the whole intention was behind this whole amendment.”
Solicitor General Robert Buckland acknowledged that previous versions of the amendment had existed until the Prime Minister decided on the final proposal on Thursday afternoon.
“There were various iterations of the motion, yes there were times in the day when we were looking at different iterations,” he told Sky News.
“The Prime Minister had a choice to make, she was given a range of options, she has delivered on the promise that she made.”
He added: “I have not lied, certainly not. I promised them that I would deal in good faith, we looked at iterations, they have been involved in the process – as have other colleagues – and in the end a decision was made by the Government to table the motion in these terms.”
While there may be “political consequences” from the vote promised under the amendment, “this particular approach does not tie the hands of the Government in the way that the original amendment that was proposed by Dominic Grieve and others did”.
Mr Grieve previously tabled his own proposals, which would have allowed Parliament to dictate the next steps the Government should take if no deal was reached by the end of February.
However, the Grieve amendment was not forced to a vote on Tuesday after would-be rebels accepted “personal assurances” from the PM that a compromise would be found.
Now Conservative peer Viscount Hailsham has re-tabled Mr Grieve’s amendment in the House of Lords, setting the scene for a fresh Government defeat when the Bill returns to the Second Chamber on Monday.
Pro-EU Tories were quick to voice their anger.
Shortly before the text of the amendment was tabled, former minister Anna Soubry tweeted to say that “deal or no deal Parliament will have a meaningful vote and … there will be no hard Brexit” but after the proposal was published she said “without consultation what was agreed earlier today has been changed”.
Sarah Wollaston tweeted: “So just to be clear we are now going to have to amend the ‘unamendable’ after the agreed amendable amendment acquired a sneaky sting in the tail.
“Would be funny if only it wasn’t such a serious issue.”
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said: “Theresa May has gone back on her word and offered an amendment that takes the meaning out of the meaningful vote. Parliament cannot – and should not – accept it.”
But senior Tory backbencher Tom Tugendhat said the issue of the “meaningful vote” was secondary as the Government would fall if it could not secure parliamentary approval for its Brexit deal.
“If the government can’t get the most important treaty through Parliament we’ll be looking for a new government,” said Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Mr Tugendhat.